Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2009: The International Year of Astronomy

I am still on vacation, but 2009 begins in less than 24 hours. 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first astronomical observations (also the 60th anniversary of first light for the Hale Telescope). The International Astronomical Union will be celebrating all year long with an unprecedented push for public outreach in astronomy.

2009 is the International Year of Astronomy!

Palomar Observatory will be involved in many of the IYA projects. From time to time I'll be posting about the IYA activities that you can enjoy.

First off is the 365 Days of Astronomy - an astronomy podcast for every day of the year. Visit the link, subscribe (its free!) and you can have iTunes drop a new astronomy podcast at your doorstep each and every new day for a whole year. How cool is that? Towards the end of January you'll have a chance to hear my first podcast and others during the year as well.

The International Year of Astronomy has an official trailer. Have a look:

After you've seen the trailer click on over to Astronomy Picture of the Day to see today's entry The Sky in Motion. It is inspirational.

Happy New Year to all the readers of Palomar Skies. It should be an exciting one.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Observatory: Open

Just a quick note to let you know that the observatory is finally again open to the public. Our normal public visiting hours (9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m.) are now in affect.

I haven't been posting much lately (seeing as I am on vacation), but there is lots of cool stuff waiting in the wings for when I return. Not the least of which is that the International Year of Astronomy begins in mere days. Palomar will be involved in a number of ways. More on that later.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Icy Conditions Close Observatory - Again

Christmas Day brought rain followed by a hard freeze that left everything coated in ice. The result is extremely slippery conditions that kept the observatory closed on December 26. Temperatures are supposed to rise above freezing today, but it is currently just 20 degrees and it may be a while before we reopen to the public. We certainly will not do so until conditions are safe for visitors.

Update: Still icy. Still closed. In all shady spots the roads on Palomar Mountain are pretty bad.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Observatory to re-open December 23

The snow removal at the observatory continues and the observatory is expected to re-open on Tuesday December 23rd. Of course the observatory will be closed December 24 & 25 as is traditional.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Warning: Snow Falling Off Dome!

Today is the Winter Solstice and yes, we are still closed to the public due to snow.

When we are open to the public we do ask that visitors read and obey all signs. They are posted for everyone's safety.

During and immediately after a snowfall there is always a danger at the observatory. One that most visitors do not think about--snow and ice falling off of the Hale Telescope's dome. The dome is 135 feet high. A slump of snow falling from that height carries a lot of energy--energy that could cause great damage, injury or even death.

When we are open to the public and the potential is there for snow to fall off of the dome the observatory staff does its best to warn visitors by posting signs like the one below.

Many people don't pay any attention to the signs as they are really focused only on the snow.

On Friday of this week we had a slump of snow slide off of the dome on to a Manzanita tree growing between the dome and the visitors path next to it. The impact of snow, yes snow, to the tree makes it look like the tree had exploded.

Notice that the trees in the background have already lost their snow. We keep the dome at nighttime temperatures (you get better images of the stars that way) which keeps the snow and ice on the dome far longer than it stays in the surrounding trees. As a result, most people wouldn't expect to have anything fall onto them, because they can see that all the snow has already fallen from the trees.

Thankfully no one was hit by this. Imagine what it would have done.

In February 1998 the observatory had just acquired a new car (one week before) when a visiting astronomer had parked it right next to the dome early in the morning, before the staff had the chance to up the signs warning of snow falling off of the dome. The result could have been deadly. Thankfully the observer was not in the car when the snow fell. The impact of snow falling off of the dome crushed the roof of the vehicle.

When visiting the observatory for snow, be careful out there and pay attention to all signs. They are posted for everyone's safety. And when we are closed because of snow that's for everyone's safety too.

Thanks to Steve Kunsman for providing me with the photos for this post.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Still Closed

Snow, ice, fallen tree limbs and other issues have been taxing the observatory staff. As such the observatory is closed today (December 19) and will remain closed through the weekend (December 20 - 21). So anyone looking to find a place to play in the snow should find another place to visit. Sorry about that.

Have a look at the shot below.

Notice that there is still a fair amount of snow on the dome making standing next to the dome a very dangerous place to be. Several inches of snow falling from the top of the 135-foot tall dome can be very damaging. In a future post, I will put up a photo of what happened to a car that was parked next to the dome when snow fell onto it. It was not pretty.

Fallen tree limbs have also been a problem at various locations on site.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


The observatory is still closed to the public. The staff has two to three feet of snow (plus bigger drifts!) to deal with giving them plenty of work to do just to get the telescopes back to astronomy. Getting the grounds ready for visitors will take a while.

For anyone who may be wondering why I am not answering my phone - I am snowed out of my office.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Snow & Ice

We are in the middle of a big winter storm. The observatory, and likely the road here, is closed for at least the rest of today.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Winter Weather on Palomar = Caution

Mother Nature can strike hard in the wintertime. Even though Palomar Mountain is located in Southern California (where the stars always shine) the mountain and the observatory are not immune to the ravages of winter.

Yesterday's winter storm produced at least one accident on Palomar (see photo below) and kept the observatory from opening to the public. The weather also kept me from updating our website to reflect the closure. Whenever possible I'll post notice of closures but we also try to update our Public Information Recording when weather or other conditions will interfere with your visit to the observatory. The number for the Public Information Recording is (760) 742-2119.

When planning a visit to to Palomar, especially in winter, be sure to check the weather forecast and our "Special Notes" on our Driving to Palomar Observatory webpage.

As of this writing, we are still closed and will not re-open until it is safe for visitors to be on observatory grounds. There's lots of snow and ice to clear from our walkways. Another winter storm is on the way that will likely keep us closed on Wednesday and maybe beyond.

Stay safe!

More TV Premiers of The Journey to Palomar

The Journey to Palomar, the TV-documentary on the career of George Ellery Hale and the telescopes he built, is still having premiers in various PBS markets.

Look for it on KQED in San Francisco Wednesday, Dec. 17th at 10PM on regular and HD and also on KQED World on Dec. 19.

Viewers in Dallas can check it out on KERA next Monday, the 22nd at 9PM and in our nation's capital (Washington DC) it will premier it on WETA on Sunday, December 28 at 3:30 PM.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mosaic Sees First Light!

As reported earlier in the week Palomar's 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope is getting a new camera known as Mosaic. I am happy to report that it was successfully installed yesterday and last night it achieved first light just ahead of an oncoming winter storm. Commissioning for the instrument will continue for the next several weeks and it will likely be mid to late January before we have any pretty pictures to show from the instrument.

In the meantime here are some shots from the recent activity in the dome.

The 96-megapixel Mosaic camera
Mosaic hooked up to its vacuum pump and control electronics as the crew prepares it for a floor test prior to installing it into the telescope.

Caltech's Gustavo Rahmer working inside the Samuel Oschin Telescope. Note that the camera is held in place by the four vanes of the "spider". The optics of the camera are pointed toward the primary mirror and can be seen in reflection just above Gustavo.

David Hale examines the connections in the telescope's interior as Gustavo looks on.

Congratulations to the entire crew. Palomar Transient Factory should produce some very exciting results in the coming years. Stay tuned.

Happy Birthday to the Mt. Wilson 60-inch Telescope!

Happy Birthday to the Mt. Wilson 60-inch Telescope! Today is its 100th anniversary of first light.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


It is almost time for a new sky survey to begin at Palomar Observatory. The wide-field Samuel Oschin Schmidt Telescope is ready to receive its new camera - Mosaic.

Mosaic is due to arrive at Palomar this afternoon. The camera is an array of 12 8-megapixel CCD chips. Each image from this 96-megapixel camera will cover 7 square degrees of sky. It will survey the sky for the new Palomar Transient Factory, an automated program to detect and rapidly (in the same night) classify transient sources in the sky. Follow-up observations will be performed with the Palomar 60-inch telescope and other telescopes located elsewhere.

The survey should detect supernovae, variables, quasars, exoplanets and much more.

This fall the observatory staff has been performing maintance on the telescope and its optics. You may have already seen a shot of the newly re-aluminized primary mirror. The telescope's 48-inch corrector plate was also cleaned.

Here is how it looked back in September:

And how it looks today:

There have been so many shots of dirty and clean optics on the Palomar Skies blog this year, that most readers may think that we do this all the time. Actually most of the telescope mirrors only get re-aluminized once every couple of years or so. This year they were all due to get some care, making this a record year for the staff to clean and re-coat optics. In addition to a 40-inch mirror for Mount Laguna Observatory the staff re-coated the 60-inch, 72-inch and 200-inch mirrors and cleaned the corrector for the Samuel Oschin Telescope. That's a lot of glass to care for.

Expect to see some shots of the installation of Mosaic as that work progresses.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Pointing the Way

Last weekend observatory docent Richard Garcia and I had the chance to give David Ho, of Hotech Corporation, a tour of the Hale Telescope.

That's David & I below.

The tour was our way of thanking David for one of the cool items that his company produces - the Astro Aimer. In the photo above David and I are each holding an Astro Aimer. He is doing so to show off his product, I am doing so because the tool I use for public outreach. It combines a red and a white LED flashlight with a 5mW green laser all in one package. I pretty much can't live without one of these tools when it comes to giving tours of the Hale Telescope or hanging out at a star party.

Thanks go out to Richard Garcia for being a super docent at Palomar and taking the photo.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Operation SkyPhoto

Speaking of the Palomar Sky Survey . . . prints from the first survey are being used for a noble cause. Operation SkyPhoto is selling prints to help pay the huge costs associated with treating Alexander Thatte. Alexander is the son of two members of the Physics department of the University of Oxford. He has been battling leukemia for 4 years with chemotherapy and two bone-marrow transplants.The prints themselves are fantastic and make wonderful holiday gifts for anyone with an interest in astronomy. Here is your chance to help someone in need and get a cool thing in return. It doesn't get any better than that.

Hubble Holidays

The folks that run HubbleSite have put up some holiday cards of astronomical images.

One of them just happens to be a shot of the Pleiades captured with the Palomar Samuel Oschin Telescope for the Second Palomar Sky Survey.

Pouring Glass: the Movie

Here is some of the film footage shot from the pouring of the first 200-inch disc on March 25, 1934. Film was shot on the pouring of the second disc (December 2, 1934) but I haven't seen any of that yet.

If anyone knows where I can see footage from the second casting please let me know.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

December 2, 1934

I am a few days late in marking the seventy fourth anniversary of the casting of the 200-inch mirror, but I finally have a moment to do so.

Back in March, on the anniversary of the casting of the first 200-inch disc, I described some of the process of making the mirror. The first casting was unsuccessful and the team at Corning Glass Works, led by Dr. George McCauley, got to work in re-engineering the mirror's honeycombed underside. Finally, nearly nine months later they were ready to try again.

The date of the pouring of the mirror, December 2, 1934, also happens to have been my mother's 5th birthday. So here's a happy belated birthday to both the 200-inch mirror and my mom.

Lots of people worked in a variety of capacities on the task of casting the mirror. Tinsmiths, carpenters and more. Those that handled the molten glass, the ladlers, faced intense working conditions. Their task was to scoop out 750 pounds of molten glass and deliver it to the mold. The glass was hot enough to melt steel so part of the crew had to hose down the outside of the ladle. It was a monumental job. These were the men who accomplished the task:

Vincent Capo, Harry Contento, Frank Crisci, Joe Miller, Nick Miller, Frank Oriella, Joe Ruocco, George Scott, Oran Smith, Pasquale Yorio, Rosario Yorio. This was back in the heart of the Great Depression. The highest paid of the ladelers made just 48 cents an hour, earning them $3.84 for their day.

Corning's staff photographer, Ayres A. Stevens, captured many moments in the entire process of making the mirror. This photo is one of my favorites.

Later on, when I have more bandwidth (possibly Saturday), I'll post a short film clip of the team in action.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Not quite yet . . . .

Today is seventy fourth anniversary of the pouring of the glass for the 200-inch mirror, I am not able to make an appropriate post today so I will put it off until sometime tomorrow. In the meantime have a look at this June 1934 article from Modern Mechanix describing the pouring of the first disc which was unsuccessful.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Palomar in Science Fiction - III

Today I bring you the Thanksgiving version of Palomar in Science Fiction. Well, sort of. Have a look at this.

Yes, it is a Bugs Bunny and Marvin the Martian in the cartoon known as Hasty Hare. Just watch it before you read any more. OK?

About 5:40 the cartoon really takes off as far as I am concerned. Bugs drops anchor from the spaceship and all sorts of mayhem ensues.

You wont see the "Palomar" reference until a little later (6:19) as an observatory comes into view. The observatory looks a lot like Mt. Wilson. Wouldn't you agree?

Here's the cartoon version:
And the real thing:

That's much more than a passing resemblance. It looks to me like the artist used Mt. Wilson as the subject for the cartoon.

Finally, here's the observatory with the various astronomical objects that Bugs has managed to drag along.
The Palomar reference (and the admittedly weak Thanksgiving reference, well it is more to do with turkeys) comes at the end when the observatory's director, I. Frisky Frisby, resigns. Notice the stationary:
Yes, it is the Shalomar Observatory. The cartoon was released in 1951 just a few years after the Hale Telescope at Palomar became the world's largest telescope.

As far as I know no employee of the Palomar Observatory has ever resigned to take up turkey farming - yet.

UPDATE: Commenter Anonymous points out that it was actually I. Frisby who signed the letter (I must need to get my glasses checked) and that the astronomer is a caricature of Warner Brothers animator Fritz Freleng.

Judging by the number of comments & emails I have received on this post I would say that I need to have more cartoon astronomy posts in the future.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

200-inch Aluminizing - more photos

Here is a batch of photos from last week's aluminizing of the 200-inch mirror. BIG THANKS to Susan V for capturing these shots while I was away at Corning. She did a super job!

Remember to click on the images for more aluminizing goodness.

The Palomar day crew working under and inside the 200-inch mirror cell prior to the mirror's removal from the telescope.

The 200-inch mirror removed from the telescope, sitting on the aluminizing cart.

That's one dirty mirror.

Tools of the trade for washing telescope mirrors.

Washing the 200-inch mirror.

"You missed a spot."

"Green River" is applied to the surface of the mirror to strip away the thin coating of aluminum. This reveals the mirror's honeycombed backside. Notice that some aluminum still remained on the right side of the disc when this was taken.

The final aluminum is stripped from the mirror.

The mirror is covered overnight to protect the clean surface.

The 17.5-ton bell jar is lifted as the mirror gets a final air cleaning to remove any dust from the surface of the glass.

One of the three glow discharge events prior to aluminizing the mirror.

Two of the 220 coils fire to deposit the thin layer of aluminum to the surface of the mirror.

If you haven't yet, be sure to check the post below for the "official" before and after shots of the mirror.

Friday, November 21, 2008

200-inch Aluminizing - first photos

I have so many photos of the aluminizing I don't know where to start. Here are the dramatic before and after shots of the mirror. As you can see the crew here has done a fantastic job.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Aluminizing Update # 7

I haven't had time for updates lately, but this will catch everyone up.

Late Sunday afternoon the new layer of aluminum was deposited on the mirror. Monday morning atmosphere was slowly re-admitted to the tank and the mirror was examined late Monday morning. All looks very good. The mirror is being returned to the telescope as I type this.

Many photos to follow later in the week.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Aluminizing Update # 6

The crew has finished cleaning the mirror. Just a short while ago they picked up the 17.5-ton top to the bell jar (above) and carefully lowered it around the 200-inch mirror. The mirror is safely inside and the rough pumping has begun.

All of the air must be drawn out in order to put down the new layer of aluminium on the mirror's surface. It typically takes a day or so to achieve the proper vacuum.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Aluminizing Update # 5

Today the mirror was washed and stripped of aluminum. Starting at 7 am PST on Saturday the crew will give the mirror a final alcohol wash and when they are ready they will lift the top to the vacuum chamber over the mirror tomorrow morning and start pumping down to vacuum.

There will be lots of photos to share here on the blog next week of both the aluminizing and of the amazing trip that I have had to the birthplace of the mirror - Corning, NY. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Aluminizing Update #4

I am still away and haven 't had any reports come my way, but in the picture below (click to enlarge) you can see the crew giving a final push to put the mirror cart intoplace for washing and stripping the mirror.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Aluminizing Update #3

Day 1 finished with the mirror cart being pushed under the telescope. The "knees" were removed and the cart raised to catch the mirror. You can see a really quick movie here. Don't worry, I'll have a much better movie of the activities sometime next week.

The photo shows the mirror as it is now - just lowered from the telescope. That's how it is spending the night. Expect the Palomar Day Crew to push the mirror cart and its precious cargo back to the aluminizing station sometime after 7 am PST on Thursday.

After than the washing and stripping of the old coating will begin.

Aluminizing Update #2

The Cassegrain cage has been removed.

200" Aluminizing Update #1

I am unfortunately travelling today and will have to update the blog from afar. Work on removing the 200-inch mirror is underway. It is a very involved process. First the science instrument is removed from the Cassegrain cage. Then (seemingly) miles of wire and fiber optics must be carefully removed as well. The telescope is fitted with earthquake tie downs, computer racks are removed and then, eventually, the cage is lowered.

At last check of the webcam, the cage is still attached. There is still work to go before they are ready to lower it.
Here's an interesting shot from today's activities. I explained how such images are produced in an earlier post. Two short webcam movies, hosted at HPWREN, of some of this morning's activities are available here and here.

Update: They've opened the dome.

That's something you don't often see in the daytime, but it provides plenty of light & and some much needed warmth for the crew. Don't worry - I expect they will close the dome before the mirror comes out.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hale Telescope Aluminizing Preview

Here's another YouTube preview of aluminizing the 200-inch mirror.

Remember the action begins on Wednesday which may be the best day to watch via the webcam.

Monday, November 10, 2008

This Week: Journey to Palomar Finally on TV & 200-inch Aluminizing

The Journey to Palomar will finally be showing on PBS stations starting tonight. Sorry, if I have been promoting it too much in the blog.

On Wednesday of this week we will begin re-aluminizing the Hale Telescope's 200-inch mirror. Here's a time-lapse video preview from June 2005.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Great Galaxy in Andromeda

Here's another scan of a vintage PR shot from Palomar. This is of M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. The image was captured by the 48-inch Schmidt telescope at Palomar (now known as the Samuel Oschin Telescope) and was copyrighted by Caltech in 1959. Believe it or not, we still have a limited quantity of this poster for sale in the observatory's gift shop.

M31 has been an important galaxy in the history of astronomy. As the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way it has served as an important stepping stone out into the universe. In the 1920s Edwin Hubble used the 100-inch Hooker Telescope on Mt. Wilson to determine that the Andromeda Galaxy is a separate system from the Milky Way. His determination of its distance was off by a factor of two - a measurement that was later corrected by Walter Baade, using the 200-inch on Palomar. Modern estimates place the distance at 2.9 million light years.

M31 was photographed using the Samuel Oschin Telescope as a part of the Second Palomar Sky Survey. The photographic plates from that survey have been digitized and the images are available online. Davide De Martin of has used that data to produce a beautiful image of the galaxy.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Journey to Palomar getting some good press

The Journey to Palomar is getting some coverage in advance of its TV premiere next week. The website for Sky & Telescope magazine has an article on the show that includes an audio interview with the filmmakers and an extended preview of the film. Check it out.

There is also an article about the 200-inch mirror in the December issue of Sky & Telescope, but I haven't seen it yet.

Here's a story on the movie from the Chicago Sun-Times.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Check Your Local Listings

Every PBS affiliate gets to choose their broadcast date and time for The Journey to Palomar. Because of this, you'll want to check your local listings.

Here are a few broadcast dates & times

WSKG in Corning, NY - Monday, November 10 @ 10 p.m.
KPBS in San Diego, CA - Monday, November 10 @ 9 p.m.
KCET covering Pasadena, CA - Saturday, Novmber 15, @ 9 p.m.

If you happen to be in Ketchum, Idaho this Sunday you can see an advance screening at the Magic Lantern Cinema with George Ellery Hale's grandson. How cool is that?

Prime Focus Instrument Change

Here's a movie of a recent instrument change at Prime Focus. A high-resolution version (131 mb) is available here. That's the Hale Telescope's Large Format Camera heading down and the Wide-field Infrared Camera going up. Instrument changes such as this one are pretty common, happening several times each month. What is uncommon is re-aluminizing the 200-inch primary mirror. We only do that every 2 years or so.

On Wednesday, November 12 be sure to tune in to the Hale Telescope's web cam to catch all the action. The 14.5-ton mirror will be pulled from the telescope that day.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Celestron Supports Public Outreach at Palomar

I would like to offer a big "thank you" to Celestron for their recent donation to the public outreach programs at Palomar Observatory.

Last Sunday, Celestron's Kevin Kawai attended the Journey to Palomar screening at the observatory and before he and the rest of the Celestron group left the dome they presented this telescope to us.

No, not the 200-inch one in the background, but rather the NexStar 130 SLT that's in the box with Kevin (right) and myself.

Me, along with Celestron's Men in Black.

The NexStar will be one of the telescopes put into use for new public outreach programs that will soon be taking place at Palomar. More on the new programs will be posted here as they become ready.